Kenneth Jones’ Alabama Story, the fact-inspired play about a librarian put on the griddle for protecting a children’s book in a time of social change in the Deep South, is a finalist in the 2014 National Playwrights Conference of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. The title was judged to be in the top 4 percent of more than 1,200 submissions to NPC’s blind adjudication process.
One of about 50 finalists, the six-actor play (four men, two women) will be featured on the O’Neill Center’s website in the coming weeks. Ultimately, Alabama Story was not selected as one of a half-dozen titles that will receive a stage reading and further industry development at the July 2014 NPC in bucolic Waterford, CT, a stone’s throw from O’Neill’s boyhood home — Monte Cristo Cottage — in New London. (Here’s a look at last year’s finalists.) Wendy C. Goldberg is artistic director of National Playwrights Conference.
Alabama Story has enjoyed two developmental readings under the direction of Karen Azenberg: first, in May 2013 as part of the Southern Writers’ Project of Alabama Shakespeare Festival, and then March 31-April 5, 2014, as one of three titles in Pioneer Theatre Company’s inaugural Play-By-Play series of readings of new works. Azenberg is artistic director of PTC in Salt Lake City.
The play is set in “the Deep South of the Imagination,” charting the story of real-life librarian Emily Wheelock Reed, who was pressured to remove Garth Williams’ children’s picture book “The Rabbits’ Wedding” off the shelves of the Alabama Public Library Service in 1959. The whimsical book, intended for three-to-seven-year-old children, is about a white rabbit that marries a black rabbit in a moonlit forest populated by other creatures. Men clinging to the carcass of Jim Crow viewed the tale of furry love as pro-integration propaganda meant to poison the minds of children. State librarian Reed was targeted by lawmakers, who also took exception to other “controversial” books promoted by the library. Their effort to legislate her out of a job made international headlines.
Garth Williams himself is written as narrator and participant in the highly theatrical drama about tests of character in a time of social turbulence. While Reed spars with a segregationist State Senator center-stage, a parallel story of childhood friends reunited in adulthood reflects the political and personal tensions swirling in Montgomery — a city known as both the Cradle of the Confederacy and the Cradle of Civil Rights.